My Shavout Encounter

I come from a reformed Protestant background. We don’t keep many feast and festivals. In the way of sacraments, we take a minimalistic approach. I love the stream of Faith I come from, but I take the Apostle Paul’s word to heart when he said, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). A friend wrote that verse for me in a card shortly after Ethan died. At the time, I could not understand what she was trying to tell me, but I felt God in it, shaping my soul, and I am just now beginning to see. 

Yes, I love the stream of Christianity I currently live and work within, but I love other streams of Christianity too. And I want them all. I do not want to be confined to a small picture of how to express my faith, I want all that I find covered by the Blood of Jesus to be mine. I want the rhythm of ritual, and the unexplainable power and wonder of the Holy Spirit. When I open the Bible, I want to exercise proper hermeneutics as I discover sound doctrine, and I want to be the awe-struck recipeient of the secrets of God given to me by the Holy Spirit’s voice.  I want to open the Scriptures and be able to construct theology while marveling at literary beauty and technique. I want to see through the lens of a foreign culture while letting it shape my own.

Even though I came from a reformed, protestant stream, I have a thing for Orthodoxy… for example, I love liturgical calendars—both Christian and Jewish, and especially together, in the overlap. 

There is something about being aware of the times and seasons that bring me into that unbroken circle of the Messiah’s story reaching deep into the past and moving forward, toward restoration. Something about it makes me breathe deeper and slower, I feel rooted in the historical and eternal connectedness when I am aware of where we are in the calendar and daily engaging with it. 

The year I met Ethan, I began using a liturgical calendar as my daily devotional, reading through the Scripture lectionary as the year moved through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost—we often talked about this place of sustainable rhythm I was finding in the seasons, a place to remember and believe. The next year, the year Ethan died, his family brought me into the Jewish calendar of feast and festivals. They taught me the cycle and meaning of each feast held within the Hebrew calendar. Ethan’s mom invited me over for tea and cookies and opened up the scriptures for me of when and where and why the Jews were commanded to keep each festival. Ethan’s dad would send me books and video links of teaching on a Hebrew understanding of words, and seasons, of past events and present ones. In that same year, they hosted the first Seder I ever went to, and I held back silent tears flowing like a river just under my surface as every metaphor encapsulated in every beat of this ancient celebration had come to mark me forever—my story was becoming one with Jesus’ story and there would be no way to unravel the glorious weave of me into His tapestry.

Of all the Holidays, Shavout, (also known as The Feast of Weeks) is my personal favorite. Shavout takes places 7 weeks after Passover and in the Greek New Testament it is known as, Pentecost, which means fifty because it occurs 50 days after Passover. Shavout… seven weeks. Pentecost… fifty days. Its a festival that’s reward is found in the waiting. 

Shavout is a grain harvesting festival originally commanded in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. Over the past two years, the Jewish agricultural cycle has become my spiritual rhythm, secrets from God to help me know where we are at in this harrowing journey we are taking together. There were hints of it, poetic strokes in God’s language of bread and scenes painted with the textures of rain, beginning the year I met and fell in love with Ethan, but those hints were like faint whispers in the background, seen only with soulful eyes, the fullness not known until I looked back and the Father unfolded His brilliance before me. Those whispers were leading up to the years that would follow, when they would break through the surface and become the world I lived in. God’s language of Promised Land agriculture became the symphony playing all around me, I was becoming aware of each rise and fall, every note, every movement, it was setting my pace, shaping my mind. 

They first broke through the surface, these agricultural metaphors of land and rain and rivers, of bread and wine and oil, the night Ethan died. As I sat in the waiting room, flush with the numbness of shock, the Father said to me “I am a good Father, I am not going to give you a stone when what you need is a loaf of bread.” 

And then again four months later when within a week, a family member was diagnosed with Cancer, my family was being broken by actions of manipulation and betrayal, and then to really drive the knife in, Ethan’s dog died (that beloved dog’s death nearly broke me… its hard to explain, the human soul endures so much and then it reaches its tipping point–losing Emma felt like it might do me in), and I cried out to God, “If you are all-powerful, why don’t you do something? I cannot take anymore!” And He in all love and with the power to upright me, whispered out of Isaiah 28:28, that He would not thrash the grain forever, but just enough to separate the grain from the husks and straw. 

But that was just the beginning of these whispered words of wheat. A little time went on and then the winds began to blow, fierce winds that burned my surface until I felt stripped and raw. In one long season it looked as if I faced one test after another, could it all be taken away without any bitterness taking root? Could it all be taken and I still believe that God cared about my hopes and dreams and purpose on this earth even more than I did? Could it all be taken away and I still be able to see His goodness at work in my life. 

That long season of fiercely stripping winds began just a few months after Ethan’s death when all my married friends and cousins had babies (a total of 6 babies were born in my immediate circles that spring and summer) and my body ached to hold life within it the way theirs did, my arms longed to cradle life the way theirs did, my motherhood longed to be called into action the way theirs had. 

Next my friends, dear friends who had walked with me through the darkness of losing Ethan began to move far away to distant lands like Virginia and Tennessee, places that felt impossibly far from California, and as I prepared to say goodbye, I felt the loss sharply, and in a strange way it was as if I was losing Ethan all over again. 

Then my sense of purpose was tested as my brother and one of my dearest friends went without me to Africa—to the country I had once dreamed of living and working—while God specifically told me I was not to go on mission with them this time. That was followed by the epic failure of an intense creative project that I had poured my heart and soul into and the shame I felt over letting down those I had collaborated with. Next God clearly asked me to give up all my local outreach and social justice ministries I was overseeing, and I was set to chanting over and over again, “I trust you, I trust you, I trust you,” until I believed it enough to let go of everything I was trying to build my life on as I sought to find meaning without Ethan. 

Also that year, my little sister got married to the man she had started dating the same time Ethan and I had begun dating, and I was caught in a whirlwind of joy and pain as I walked beside her through all the wedding planning, the decisions, the meltdowns, and the excitement of them starting their new family together. 

Everyday was a tightrope walk of being present to every emotion without being swept away on the tidal wave that threatened to take me under its influence of hopeless, bitter, unbelief. And it was in that long, painful season of stripping away every form of purpose I reached for, that the Father leaned in close and whispered that these fierce winds are meant to separate the grain from the chaff. He would give me bread, but bread came from wheat, wheat that had to be cut from the field, thrashed, winnowed in the wind, and finally ground into dust to make flour that would make bread. 

The year I met Ethan I often fantasied about trekking up some desolate fog endowed mountain where I could be trained in the ways of life by the all-powerful, unbreakable, master of Heaven and Earth, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I look back now over the years that followed Ethan’s death, and I see exactly that happening. Even in that season of stripping, Jesus was teaching me how to live and love like Him, present enough to be powerful in life, strong enough to be unbreakable even in death.

After the winnowing came the crushing. That season caught me off guard. I emerged from the fierce winnowing winds with something pure and solid. I looked at the grain unpolluted by chaff and I felt that I understood something of what God had been up to. I felt whole and stronger then ever. I had lost sight of the bread, and was nearly satisfied with this handful of pure grain we had emerged with. But God had not lost sight of the bread He was going to give me. He dropped me suddenly into a grinder, that obliterated the pure grain into a fine dust. I did not understand. I could not see God in the crushing events that followed. I felt like the enemy was taunting me with his victory, standing on my neck, crushing every last shred of life I had within me. I was Job, tearing my clothes and covering myself in ashes. How could this be? Why would God let me and all that was my life be destroyed beyond repair. I sobbed into the fine flour my God had made from my life and mistook it for dust and ash. I thought the end had come and He had walked away from every promise. And then one day, in the quiet, after hours spent crying and pouring over Scripture searching for a shred of hope, He whispered, “Now we are ready to bake bread.” 

So is it any wonder that Shavout, the Festival commanded to celebrate the grain harvest is my favorite. In the crushing, He is making a feast for us. 

To me, the most fascinating thing about Shavout is the passing of time between Passover and Shavout, for tucked in-between these two is another feast. Just a few days after Passover is the feast of Firstfruits. Its strange to me that Shavout is counted from Passover, but Firstfruits, like Shavout, is also a harvest festival in which the Hebrews were commanded to give an offering to the LORD. 

In Leviticus 23, we find the LORD telling Moses that the people are to take the sheaf of the firstfruits of their harvest to the priest. This was to be done in the new land that God would give them—their promised land. They were to take this first sheaf of their harvest and wave it before the LORD as an offering—and it was a statement of faith. It took faith to offer the first fruit because there was no guarantee that there would be more. When the first bit of something good comes, the first breakthrough of spring after a long hard winter, the temptation is to cling to that “sheaf”, to hide it away and fear it ever being lost because its all that you have. But God asks them to give it in faith, right in the midst of counting the Omer (the span of time between Passover and Shavout). Give what the LORD has given you and trust Him to provide the full harvest. It is a small offering, on the Feast of Firstfruits—in its entirety, it consists of one lamb, one sheaf of wheat, a food offering mix of flour and oil and a drink offering of wine. Just a lamb, some grain, oil, and wine. It reminds me of the widow’s offering, when she gives all that she has. It is small, but it is everything. And you give it, while saying over and over to yourself that God is good, that He is a good Father who knows how to give a loaf of bread when you need it. You give it in faith that Jesus came to bring life abundantly, that He doesn’t want you to live in poverty, not of possession or of soul, and that the only way to abundance is to give everything you’ve got, hold nothing back. Nothing. 

The counting of the Omer… its a very curious thing. An Omer is another word for sheaf, but it specifically is referring to a tenth of the ephah (which is an ancient Hebrew way of measuring grain). What I find curious about the counting of the Omer is that they are counting toward the fullness of what they gave a tenth of. The counting of the Omer is all about preparing to receive. 

At Shavout, we receive the fullness of what was given in Fatih at Firstfruits and what we have been waiting for during the counting of the Omer. 

Shavout commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. They had the first passover while still in captivity, enslaved by the Egyptians, just like Jesus comes to cover us in his blood while we are still in the land of our captivity before salvation. Once they are set free, in a dramatic moment of God’s power and precise storytelling genius, perhaps only surpassed with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God parts the Red Sea and the Israelites pass through unharmed while God closes the Sea in on their enemies behind them. This too, is like our baptism into the Faith, a powerful statement of freedom, the mark of a new life. We were rescued in our captivity, but we no longer identify as slaves nor live in fear as slaves do. We are a new people, preparing to receive a new culture. This is what happened at Sinai and again at Pentecost.

Jesus dies on Passover, is resurrected on the Feast of FirstFruits and the Disciples receive the power of the Holy Spirit at Shavout, or Pentecost as they called it in the Greek. Its stunning really, but why the specific gap of 7 weeks or 50 days in between Passover and Pentecost… why the wait? The wait of the Old Testament grain harvest makes sense, it takes time for the full harvest to grow, but why the same wait for the spiritual reality in the New Testament? It was, after all, still on the feast of Firstfruits, on the evening of the same day Jesus rose from the grave, that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 20:22). So why didn’t the Holy Spirit fall on them in power right then and there, the moment Jesus “breathed on them”? Rather they waited on the fulfillment of that promise. Jesus said, “receive the Holy Spirit” and then they waited for the Holy Spirit to come, they, just like all the generations of Jews before them counted the Omer that year, preparing themselves to receive. 

I, too, find myself living these days right in the midst of the Omer Count.

Shortly after discovering the depth of meaning in the Feast of Firstfruit and Shavout, I knew exactly the Firstfruit offering the LORD was asking of me and it took FAITH to give it. Now I wait, preparing to receive the fullness of what I have given.

I sit here waiting in a number of ways—in a personal promise and an eternal promise. All of us are in that strange already and not yet of the Kingdom. All of us in Christ are living in the wake of liberation, new life, new land and yet are still waiting for the fullness. But I experience this on a specifically personal level as well. I am the grain that grew from a seed … first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when that grain was ripe, He sent for the sickle because the harvest has come (see Mark 4). The swing of the sickle knocked the wind out of me. The thrashing nearly destroyed me. The winnowing winds swept me raw. The grinding into flour crushed my life into dust. And now it is time…. time to bake bread… time to celebrate Shavout… time to receive the full harvest of all the LORD has promised. 

In the coming days, my sheaf of wheat will be exchanged for two loaves of bread waved before the LORD. A double portion. A life come full circle. In the crushing, He is preparing a Feast for us. He is making all things new. 

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